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Showing Locally, Thinking Globally

L.A. Biennial organizers aren't strict about what galleries display. But they insist the art have an international aspect.

July 22, 2001|SCARLET CHENG

On a cool summer evening in the two-tiered garden of the Swedish consul general in Brentwood, a crowd of 140 art-world insiders have gathered to drink vodka and hear an update on the Absolut L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational (running through Aug. 18). Robert Berman and William Turner, co-chairmen of the event, are hailing its advances in its decade of existence.

This year, there are more participants than ever: More than 70 galleries and arts institutions, compared with last year's 65; 200 artists from 30 countries, and several new sponsors, including Audi, which has parked a spanking new sedan at the front curb as a visual aid.

Alma Ruiz, associate curator of MOCA, discusses the opening of the David Hockney retrospective, "Photoworks," which happily coincides with the opening events of the biennial.

The biennial is a unique event for L.A., a kind of contemporary art fair scattered across the area, from Venice and Santa Monica to West Hollywood, from Mid-Wilshire to downtown and Chinatown. The veteran galleries are present--Ace, Angles, Iturralde, Herbert Palmer, Louis Stern--as well as novices Coagula Projects, Gallery 2211, INMO and Lord Mori.

After their presentation, Berman and Turner, both directors of their own galleries, take a break from networking to talk about the past and present of the biennial. Both point to a previous fair, ART/LA, which began in 1986 and took place in the old Convention Center for seven years, as whetting the appetite for a citywide arts event.

"ART/LA started out with great fanfare," says Turner, citing several large New York galleries that joined in. "It felt like L.A. had really arrived."

Adds Berman, "And people were really buying art."

But the annual event began to run into trouble financially--it couldn't attract enough established dealers from L.A. or the rest of the world to be viable. After the recession hit in the early '90s, the event went belly up. In the aftermath, dealers reevaluated their options.

ART/LA "wasn't the right model for how things were going to work for Los Angeles," Turner says. "We realized the things that didn't work about an art fair in a convention center--you're in a very compromised exhibition space and it's very expensive."

In 1993, the year after the last ART/LA fair, dealers Christopher Grimes and Sandra Starr organized the first L.A. International Biennial. It was a much more modest affair--using extant galleries rather than asking gallery owners to kick in rent for booths in a central space. It was launched with a modest $6,000 contribution from Sotheby's. But says Turner, it did provide the basics dealers were looking for: "It was a great way to utilize the spaces we put so much time and effort into, as well as an opportunity to develop relationships with artists and dealers around the world."

Berman and Turner took over administrative duties the next year. At a cocktail party, Berman met the West Coast distributor for Absolut vodka, known for commissioning ads from famous artists, and talked him into becoming the title sponsor for the next biennial As a result, Absolut--which won't disclose how much support money it gives to the biennial--has taken the above-the-title credit since 1995.

Today, the event has almost doubled from the initial 40 gallery and institutional participants. Turner says the galleries are looking for a long-term payoff. "It's a fairly costly venture," he said of mounting the exhibitions and bringing in international artists and their work. "The returns are less than immediate. It varies from exhibit to exhibit and year to year. Generally, the artists exhibited are new to the gallery, and it always takes time to develop a following for them."

Starting last Wednesday and rolling into this weekend, there were a series of opening parties, organized by geography, Westside to East Side. And a number of exhibitors are planning additional receptions, discussions and performances over the five-week period.

To maximize participation, the requirements for joining the biennial are minimal. Galleries pay what Turner calls a "token fee"--$400--to participate. That, along with sponsors' contributions, pays for the coordination of biennial events and joint publicity in the form of ads and a catalog. What the organizers ask in return, Turner says, is that the galleries adhere to the event's theme.

"Since the idea of this event is to enhance and develop a dialogue between the Los Angeles art community and the international art community, there's a basic requirement that the galleries show something of international scope."

The term international can mean artists from abroad or those of foreign birth who might reside in the U. S. Otherwise, everyone is allowed to do his own thing, and certainly does.

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